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Work Box in the shape of a duck

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Levant

Boîte en forme de canard

© 2008 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Levant

Author(s):
Caubet Annie

This box in the shape of a duck would originally have held face powder. Only the duck's head has been made to look realistic. The body with a pivoting lid is a plain oval. The object was found in a tomb in Ugarit. It is made of hippopotamus ivory, like the other similar Egyptian-style boxes found in other archaeological sites throughout the Levant, all dating from the same period.

An international style

Such powder boxes in the shape of water birds, based on Egyptian models, are among the most charming pieces of ivory-work found in Ugarit. They are a perfect illustration of the blossoming of the decorative arts in the late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean region, which also produced luxury objects in earthenware and gold in what can be described as an international style for wealthy clients. Other boxes similar to this one have been found in inner Syria, along the Syrian and Palestinian coast, in Greece, and in Cyprus.
The reason for the presence of mortise on the lid of the box has been explained by the discovery of complete boxes, such as the ones found in Kamid el-Loz, now in the national museum in Beirut. Originally, the duck would have had ducklings sculpted in the round on the lid, and the mother duck would thus be turning her head to look at the ducklings on her back.

Water birds as symbols of rebirth

Because they migrate, ducks and other water birds symbolize the passing of time and the return of the new year, and thus represent the promise of rebirth and new life in the hereafter. Like doves, ducks are also associated with the great goddess of fertility. This meant that this box, used to enhance a woman's powers of seduction, was considered as enjoying divine protection.

Elephant and hippopotamus ivory

These boxes are made of hippopotamus ivory and make the best use of the size and curved triangular shape of the hippo's lower canines. Studies of Bronze Age ivory objects from the Levant show that the vast majority are made of hippopotamus ivory. Hippos have large lower canines and incisives, providing a large mass of ivory used widely by Syrian artists. A wreck of a Bronze Age ship that sank off the coast of Turkey has been found to have been carrying a load of hippopotamus ivory and part of an elephant's tusk. This proves that there was a rich trade in ivory in the eastern Mediterranean, providing ivory for workshops in Cyprus, Crete, and mainland Greece. In Ugarit, many private tombs have given up hoards of powder boxes, combs, and spindles made of ivory. Larger objects were made of elephant ivory. Elephant tusks were probably imported from Africa. Hippopotamuses were plentiful on the banks of the Nile and the Palestinian coast until Roman times.

Bibliography

Adler W., "Die Spätbronzezeitlichen Pyxiden in Gestalt von Wasservögeln", in R. Hachmann (ed.), Kamid el Loz 16. Schatzhaus Studien, Saarbrücken Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 59, Bonn, 1996, pp. 27-117.
Caubet Annie, Poplin F., "Matières dures animales : Étude du matériau", in Ras Shamra-Ougarit III. Le Centre de la Ville, sous la dir. de M. Yon, Paris, 1987, pp. 273- 306.
Caubet Annie, Gaborit-Chopin Danielle, Ivoires, Catalogue de l'exposition, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2004.

Technical description

  • Boîte en forme de canard

    XIIIe siècle avant J.-C.

    Minet el Beida, port d'Ougarit, actuelle Ras Shamra (Syrie)

    Levant

  • Ivoire d'hippopotame

    H. 5.5 cm; W. 13.2 cm

  • Partage après fouilles Claude Schaeffer, 1931 , 1931

    AO 14778

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Levant: coastal Syria, Ugarit, and Byblos
    Room B
    Vitrine 6

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